|34||THE GREEK PAPYRI.|
THE GREEK PAPYRI.By Prof. SAYCE.
64. Mr. Petrie's excavations at Gurob have revived for us the era of the Renaissance. In that exciting period the scholars of western Europe found a new world of ancient Greek literature outspread before their view; manuscript upon manuscript containing the treasures of early Greek thought passed into their hands, and invited them to fresh discoveries and an ever-widening revelation of the past.
But the oldest manuscript at their disposal was of comparatively late date. It was as a general rule separated from the age of the author of the work inscribed upon it by an interval of several centuries. Moreover a time came when the supply of fresh manuscripts was exhausted. The age of discovery seemed past and the age of criticism and collation began.
From time to time, however, more especially since the opening up of the East to European travel and exploration, fragments of classical literature have been discovered, a few of which have contained new texts. Most of them have been derived from Egypt. It was from Egypt, for instance, that the lost oration of Hypereides was brought as well as the hymn of Alkman to the Dioskouroi, and it has been Egypt which has provided us with the oldest manuscripts as yet known of the Homeric poems.
But all that Egypt has hitherto yielded to us is far surpassed by the latest discoveries of Mr. Petrie. That fortunate excavator has disinterred classical Greek papyri of an age of which the most sanguine scholar had not ventured to dream; he has found private correspondence which throws light on the social history of the Greek settlers in Egypt in the early days of the Ptolemaic dynasty, records of wills which will cast a most important light on Greek law, private accounts which inform us of prices and taxation in the Fayoum in the third century B.C., a portion of a lost play of Euripides, and last, but not least, fragments of a precious copy of the Phaedo of Plato, which must have been written not long after the lifetime of the philosopher himself. When we consider that the earliest manuscript of Plato's writings hitherto known is as late as the ninth century after the Christian era, the value of this copy of the Phaedo cannot be overestimated. It enables us to test the accuracy of the received text and to determine the extent to which the editors of Alexandria and their successors allowed themselves to correct or modify the texts which they published.
The papyri have been discovered in a way which makes it possible that other early Greek texts may be similarly brought to light, even in the Museums of Europe. At Gurob Mr. Petrie discovered a small cemetery of the Ptolemaic age, where the dead had been embalmed, in the Egyptian style and buried in mummy-cases and coffins. These he dug up, and on examining the cartonnage of which the head-pieces and breasts of the cases were composed, came to the conclusion that it was - in many instances at all events - made up of pieces of inscribed papyrus. Practical experiment proved that his conjecture was right, and further showed that the papyri were mostly inscribed with Greek texts, though a large part of them contains demotic texts. An examination of their contents has made it clear that the Egyptian undertaker, before making a mummy case, bought the waste-paper basket of one of his neighbours, and turned the papers that were in it into papier-mâché for the particular mummy-case he had on hand. Hence it happens that the papyri coming from a particular mummy all belong to the same collection, the cartonnage of one mummy-case, for example, being composed of letters and documents relating to a certain Kleôn, that of another of the papers belonging to Diophanês and so on. Of course in some instances the same collection served to produce papier-mâché for more than one mummy-case.
The importance of the circumstances under which the papyri have been found will be apparent when we come to discuss the date of the fragments of the Phaedo. Many of the fragments are dated, and in all the various collections the dates belong to the same period. This is the latter part of the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, and the first few years of the reign of his successor. Roughly speaking most of the documents belong to about B.C. 250; none (so far as I know) are later than B.C. 225.
The dated documents are either private letters, or accounts, or the rough copies of wills. They are all of an ephemeral character; there is nothing among them which the owner would have cared to keep for more than a year or two. Their destination was the waste-paper basket as soon as the immediate purpose was served for which they were written.
We may therefore conclude that they passed into the undertaker's hands shortly after the time to which
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